the news frontier

The New Pioneers of the West

Start-up tries to fill the void in environment coverage
July 17, 2009

When Robert McClure picked up the phone to talk to about the new journalism startup he’s working for, Investigate West, he was at an airport in Dallas, getting ready to fly back to Seattle after doing some reporting in Texas. McClure and his photographer had a three-hour layover in Orange County before heading north. Had this been 1999, McClure would be working on this story as an environment reporter at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, probably taking a direct flight home. But it’s 2009: the P-I is online, its environment team is gone, and in pursuit of his story, McClure looks for the cheapest tickets the Web can find.

Investigate West’s mission is to help fill the investigative and narrative reporting void left by widespread newspaper layoffs from the Pacific to the Rockies, producing stories focused on the environment, social justice, and health. “Newspapers don’t have the kind of content we used to have,” said McClure.

Resolving that problem will be difficult, however. The organization has only raised $3,000 of a projected first-year budget of $1.35 million, and hopes to make up the difference in a variety of ways: membership schemes, philanthropic funding, syndicating news content, and partnering with existing news services to distribute content. McClure says that Investigate West will sell multimedia packages of its reporting to other news outlets, where a newspaper, radio, or TV station could have exclusive use of the content for a limited amount of time. After that time, other local and national media outlets can buy the story. These details aren’t set in stone—McClure says that Investigate West is hoping to be a flexible outlet, catering to each of the organizations that it’ll work for.

Though the Web site has barely been up for a week, the reporters at Investigate West are already working on three large projects: one on the misuse of public land, one on climate change, and one on health problems and insufficient job protection. There has already been some interest from national media organizations in purchasing these stories, McClure says. He hopes that local news outlets will be able to use these reports as a jumping off point for local coverage. “They could adapt it,” he says. “They could run our piece, then a local companion piece, do their own reporting and combine them.” McClure envisions collaborative reporting projects with national outlets and universities as well. In the meantime, Investigate West’s site features two blogs: Western Exposure and Dateline Earth.

Most members of Investigative West’s seven-person staff are former Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporters (and an editor), a newspaper that was known for its incisive environment reporting. Its Web site currently lists six other contributors as well, noting that the outlet “is establishing a network of correspondents and photojournalists throughout the West. These freelancers will serve as listening posts as well as producers of innovative, insightful journalism. We are looking for not just the most capable investigators, but also those who can tell a tale with the freshest voice. Investigate West is also committed to helping train the next generation of journalists and has an active internship program with local universities.”

The talent is obviously there, but as this industry has proved time and again, sometimes good reporting isn’t enough. “The easy part is doing the good journalism, you know that,” Rita Hibbard, the executive director and editor of Investigate West, told Poynter Online. “I guess failure is not getting any amount of funding to launch our first year of operations.”

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So far, financial support for Investigate West isn’t nearly what it should be. “We are all, as I like to say, living a salary-free existence, unencumbered by a paycheck,” McClure says.

According to the Poynter article, Investigate West has a first-year budget of $1.35 million. Seventy-seven percent of that will be spent on producing journalism. The staff expects that $850,000 will come from foundations. The other $500,000 would come from memberships and content sales. So far, Investigate West only has a $3,000 grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism. McClure hopes that after the immediate help from philanthropic foundations, memberships will take over as the main source of funding.

Whatever the right formula turns out to be, it is reassuring to see journalists banding together in troubled times, and we hope Investigate West succeeds. With the loss of P-I, The Rocky Mountain News and countless other jobs across the region, the country’s old frontier needs some new pioneers.

Sanhita Reddy is a former Observatory intern currently living in Brazil on a Fulbright scholarship, studying the media sources people use to find health information.